US man charged in New York City subway chokehold death

Daniel Penny faces manslaughter charge in death of homeless subway passenger Jordan Neely, which set off protests.

A man who killed a homeless New York City subway passenger by placing him in a chokehold has been charged with manslaughter, as the death of Jordan Neely continues to draw condemnation and calls for better social services in the United States.

Daniel Penny, a former US Marine, appeared in Manhattan Criminal Court to be arraigned on one count of second-degree manslaughter on Friday, just hours after turning himself in at a police station.

Penny did not enter a plea, and a judge authorised his release on bond but ordered him to surrender his passport and not leave New York without approval.

A day earlier, prosecutors said they intended to charge the 24-year-old with manslaughter in the killing of Neely, 30, in early May.

A viral video showed Penny putting Neely in a chokehold on May 1 while they rode on the F train in Manhattan. Neely died from a compression of the neck, the medical examiner later said, but Penny’s lawyers said he did not mean to kill him.

The case has prompted a nationwide debate about violence against people experiencing homelessness and mental health issues, as well as the services available to them.

According to witnesses, Neely, who was known to impersonate Michael Jackson in the New York City subway system, was complaining loudly about being hungry and saying he was ready to die when Penny came up behind him and gripped him around the neck.

New York City subway riders look at a protest over the death of subway passenger Jordan Neely
Subway riders look on as people protest the death of Jordan Neely, in New York City, May 8 [Andrew Kelly/Reuters]

Penny restrained him on the floor of the subway car until he appeared to stop moving. Neely was later declared dead.

The killing, and a delay by prosecutors in charging Penny, sparked protests, with some saying the incident amounted to a “lynching” and an example of “white vigilantism” against people of colour. Neely was Black and Penny is white.

In a statement from his legal team, Penny expressed “condolences to those close to Mr. Neely”. The statement alleged that Neely had aggressively threatened passengers riding in the subway car.

“Daniel never intended to harm Mr. Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death,” it said.

Donte Mills, a lawyer for Neely’s family, said the 30 year old wasn’t harming anyone. “There was no attack,” Mills said during a news conference on Friday. “Mr Neely did not attack anyone. He did not touch anyone. He did not hit anyone. But he was choked to death.”

Penny, he said, “acted with indifference. He didn’t care about Jordan, he cared about himself. And we can’t let that stand.”

Neely’s father, Andre, wept as another family lawyer, Lennon Edwards, recounted the last moments before Penny tackled Neely to the ground and put him in a chokehold. “What did he think would happen?” Mills asked.

US Congressman Ritchie Torres, who represents a New York district, wrote on Twitter on Friday morning that Penny “should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law”.

“Jordan Neely was not armed with any weapon. He did not attack any person. He did not manifest any physical threat. There was no justification for choking him to death,” Torres said.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has faced criticism for his response to Neely’s killing, as well as for a crackdown on homelessness launched by his administration.

Adams initially refrained from commenting in depth on Neely’s death, but in a statement on Wednesday, he said, “Jordan Neely did not deserve to die.”

“Jordan Neely’s life mattered. He was suffering from severe mental illness, but that was not the cause of his death. His death is a tragedy that never should have happened,” the mayor said.

A second-degree manslaughter charge in New York will require the jury to find that a person has engaged in reckless conduct that creates an unjustifiable risk of death, and then consciously disregards that risk.

The law also requires that conduct to be a gross deviation from how a reasonable person would act in a similar situation.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies